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Election Year: 1987
Scientific Discipline: Physiology and Pharmacology
Membership Type: Member
Biochemist Martin Rodbell established the fundamental understanding of glucose and lipid metabolism. He developed methods for studying isolated fat cells that are still in use today, defining the effects of hormones on glucose and lipid metabolism. His studies on the role of guanine nucleotides in regulation of adenylate cyclase activity led to his groundbreaking (and Nobel prize winning) discovery of a family of membrane-bound guanine nucleotide binding proteins, known as G-proteins, that functioned as signal transducers, facilitating cellular communication. He found that cells signaled each other through a series of complex chemical reactions that began with the release and distribution of hormones in the bloodstream. Along with his colleague, Alfred Gilman, Rodbell demonstrated that the fundamental role of G-proteins was essential for maintaining normal bodily functions. This finding led to the discovery that certain cancers are caused by mutated or overactive G-proteins. He also established a more comprehensive knowledge of specific hereditary glandular disorders and how G-proteins contributed to the symptoms of diabetes, alcoholism, and cholera. Rodbell’s other major contributions included: determining the roles of magnesium and membrane lipids that were two other key regulators of cyclase activity, studying glucagon structure and function relationships, developing a sensitive (and now standard) procedure for adenylate cyclase assay, and being the first scientist to recognize that guanine nucleotides were capable of inhibiting, as well as promoting, adenylate cyclase activity.
Rodbell attended Johns Hopkins University where he received his B.A. degree in biology in 1949. He pursued his doctorate at the University of Washington, earning his Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1954. He worked at the National Heart Institute as a biochemist from 1956 to 1960 before becoming a chemist at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Skin Diseases (NIAMD) the following year. In 1970, Rodbell accepted a position as chief of the Membrane Regulation Section of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) where he stayed until 1973 (he would return from 1983 to 1985). In 1973, he became chief of the Laboratory of Nutrition and Endocrinology at NIDDK. From 1981 until his retirement in 1994, Rodbell served as the Scientific Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He was a member of the American Society of Biological Chemists, and he was the recipient of the following honors: the Superior Service Award from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1974, the Gairdner International Award in 1984, the Award of Scientific Merit of the NIH in 1984, and the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (shared with Gilman) in 1994.